Russian composer Igor Stravinsky's music for the Ballets Russes company's The Rite of Spring, which made its debut in 1913, proved so stirring, remarkable and timeless that it has become part of standard orchestral repertoire.
It made sense to Columbus Symphony Orchestra music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni for the CSO to perform it in this, the 100th anniversary of its premiere. It also made sense, seeing as it's a dance piece, to collaborate with BalletMet Columbus.
"I wanted to program it just for orchestral purposes. It's a masterwork," Zeitouni told The Beat. "But I decided I might as well call (then-BalletMet artistic director) Gerard (Charles) and see about doing it with the dancers. It was a no-brainer."
It is, however, a difficult piece to stage in this fashion. Stravinsky's score calls for an orchestra of 110 players. Most orchestra pits won't accommodate an ensemble that size.
"Occasionally you might get to do it with a ballet, and maybe more often you'll see something this year because of the anniversary, but since the 1920s it's more often performed as a concert piece," Zeitouni explained.
He said it made sense, though, to figure out how to combine forces with BalletMet. This production will feature the CSO on the Ohio Theatre stage, behind the dancers.
"We will remove the shell and play with the musicians on risers. The different layers will make the orchestra like part of the set, with the lighting and choreography in front," he said. "It will have a very young, very fresh, very modern feel."
BalletMet artistic consultant James Kudelka is choreographing the piece. Kudelka was behind the scenes at the Joffrey Ballet when it restaged the original Nijinsky choreography (which, in 1913, caused audience riots following its debut due to the avant-garde nature of the dance) and also created his own Rite of Spring choreography as a young choreographer. Kudelka is combining his experience for an all-new work.
Either way, it is the same 35-minute musical score that is performed. Zeitouni said the piece is a benchmark in the history of classical music.
"There is what came before, and what came after," he said, explaining that how Stravinsky employed basic musical elements did not obviously build on the traditions that preceded Stravinsky, but did create a new compositional paradigm to be copied by composers ever since.
"This is not to say it's not an accessible piece, because it's very accessible. Whether rock and roll or modern dance or world music, they all have elements in Rite of Spring."
From the sheer volume of instrumentation, to the tones demanded by the composer, to the difficulty of the parts and to the range of dynamics and textures, "it pushes the limit for every instrument," Zeitouni said.
"It's definitely a fun piece to play for the musicians. It's a great challenge but very rewarding."